Exercise has many proven health benefits, from reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease to improving your mood — and even a stronger immune system.
There are many theories as to how exercise boosts the immune system, and it’s likely that this happens in a few different ways. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can exercise safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
Exercise boosts immunity and can help fight off infections
Exercise benefits your immune system in many ways. It can increase blood flow, help clear bacteria out of your airways, cause a brief elevation in body temperature that may be protective, strengthen antibodies to help fight infection, and reduce stress hormones.
Exercise also causes immune cells to be more effective, says Farshad Fani Marvasti, MD, director of the public health theme at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
Regular exercise reduces inflammation, allowing the immune system to perform better. While acute inflammation in response to an injury is part of a healthy immune system, chronic inflammation can slow down the immune system.
“Regular exercise improves the immune response and improves immune markers,” says Joshua Scott, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. For example, these improved markers include Interleukin 6, a protein that helps the body respond to injury.
A 2019 scientific review found that moderate-intensity exercise is linked to lower rates of upper respiratory tract infections, which includes viruses like the flu and common cold. For example, a 2018 study of 1413 people in China found that those who reported exercising at least three times a week reduced their likelihood of getting a cold by 26%.
Another 2018 study of 390 people found that those who were trained with an eight-week regimen of moderate exercise reduced their risk of acute respiratory illness by 14%, and their number of sick days by 23%, compared with people who did not receive the exercise training.
How to exercise safely during the coronavirus pandemic
According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), healthy adults should aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week — which can include activities like walking, yoga, or gardening.
But even small amounts of exercise can help strengthen your immune system. “As little as an additional 10 minutes of walking a day or 1,000 steps can have a huge impact,” Marvasti says.
Exercising during the pandemic can be tricky with stay-at-home orders in place and gyms closed. And Scott says it’s most important that you follow social-distancing guidelines — exercise can help build your immunity and response, but it won’t totally prevent you from getting sick if you are directly exposed to germs.
Scott also emphasizes that there are plenty of worthy exercises you can do inside and at home, including:
Many states are allowing residents to get outside to exercise. Just remember, if you do exercise outside, be sure to leave at least six feet of space between you and anyone else.
In addition, having an accountability partner can help you exercise more often, and it’s still possible to have a workout buddy these days.
“Call up a friend and go for a walk while you both talk to each other on your ear pods or virtually watch the same video together and do the exercises,” Marvasti says. “Be creative and have fun.”